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The Problem with Internet Regulation

By Adam Scholl

This year alone, scientists validated the Standard Model of physics, quantum teleported information 90 miles, sent messages using neutrinos, built a quantum computer inside a diamond, piloted driverless cars across an entire continent, and declared their intent to 3D print robot dinosaurs.

In the private sector, Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt teamed up with Ross Perot Jr., James Cameron, and others to announce plans to lasso asteroids in space, mine them on the moon using robots, and send trillions in profit back to Earth.

Oh, and faster-than-lightspeed warp drives capable of enabling interstellar space travel? They’re possible, maybe.

Technological innovation, needless to say, is accelerating. At last Thursday’s Blouin Creative Leadership Summit in New York City, speakers on two panels—Innovation Economies: Technology and the Creation of New Organizations and Cyber Security: National Priorities, Personal Concern—offered recommendations for dealing with this acceleration. Though the cyber security panelists were more conflicted, there was general agreement by both sets of speakers that governments should facilitate technological progress by leaving people alone. With a hive mind of hundreds of millions of users, an open Internet will almost always respond more quickly and effectively than a government to threats or changes in the virtual landscape.

At the innovation panel, MIT Professor Thomas Malone argued that the most important innovations are new ways of sharing knowledge, not new items. He pointed to Wikipedia, a leaderless project he called humanity’s biggest intellectual undertaking to date, as evidence of the vast and beneficial power of the open flow of digital information. Others suggested it would be more important to make existing forms of communication cheaper, to start publishing scientific research online instead of in academic journals, or to update structures of governance to utilize powerful new digital technology to determine the wellbeing and mindset of governed populations. Given the demonstrated advantages of uninhibited online information exchange, Malone concluded, “It’s not surprising that so many of the ideas” the panel discussed “involve giving lots more autonomy to lots more people.”

Digital autonomy was not quite so lauded at the cyber security panel. All agreed that cyber threats pose real danger, that information networks are increasingly becoming battlefields, and that protective steps must be taken as a result. From government cyber-warfare and cyber-espionage projects like the Flame and Stuxnet viruses to the anti-secrecy projects of WikiLeaks, the Internet creates new and constantly evolving risks for state security.

Still, as governments across the globe work to secure themselves from these novel threats, some panelists suggested that it would be unwise to emulate the security strategies of the past. “A certain degree of openness … can actually have benefits in terms of security, and privacy as well,” said Eddan Katz of Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. The Internet acts like an ecosystem, responding unpredictably to regulatory interference, he contended, so it should not be monitored and controlled in the name of security like physical spaces.

Yet for many government officials, regulation seems imperative. John Clippinger of MIT explained that the narrative of a potential cyber-attack is being used as “justification for those who want to govern the Internet.” In an under-reported move, he said, the UN International Telecommunications Union plans to vote this December on whether or not it has the authority to govern the Internet. Such governance is being proposed under the pretext of combating cyber-crime and cyber-warfare, but could have “far-ranging implications” on the free flow of information worldwide. States wishing to clamp down on internal dissent, Reputation.com CEO Michael Fertik pointed out, have their own reasons to support the UN change, which could make censorship easier by altering the physical structure of the Internet “at the root and pipe level.”

There is hardly agreement, however, on whether such changes would even help secure the Internet at all. Complex digital systems aside, it is extremely difficult to secure even ordinary physical spaces. NYU Professor Harvey Molotch has argued, for example, that the billions upon billions of dollars spent on airport security guards, cameras, screening equipment, canine units, and more have done more harm than good. Despite the enormous cost and intrusion of these security measures, they often fail to detect threats, as evidenced by a TSA test operation in 2006 when screeners missed 20 out of 22 guns or bombs brought through security by undercover agents.

If America’s best security teams can barely prevent the physical, unchanging threat of an armed human aggressor from entering an airport, they must have dismal odds against ever-evolving and multifaceted cyber threats. Cyber security measures seem often destined for futility or, worse, for counter-productivity.

Government officials have also proposed bills and treaties to combat online piracy recently (notably SOPA and PIPA in the United States, and ACTA worldwide) that would introduce new Internet regulation. These efforts have faced fierce opposition because of freedom of speech and privacy concerns, but also because they would have unintentionally harmed web sites and web businesses wholly unrelated to piracy. Clearly, the authors of these regulations fundamentally misunderstood what they intended to regulate.

But the takeaway here is not that these bureaucrats were ignorant—it’s that such ignorance is inevitable given the incredibly complex and constantly changing nature of the Internet. To see why, consider the difficulty of regulating the Internet compared to the difficulty of regulating, say, bridges. While some bridges get built to nowhere and others collapse into rivers, most Americans benefit most of the time from bridges built and maintained by the government. While regulating this infrastructure is complicated, there are a static number of bridges in the country, which exist in fixed locations and age slowly and predictably over time. Trying to regulate the Internet, on the other hand, would be like trying to manage a transportation system in which not only new roads but new types of roads, and new types of vehicles, and new types of fuel, are invented each day. And the roads move, and hide. And some roads connect Alabama to Estonia, and are filled with invisible bandits.

Whatever one’s moral opinion of Internet piracy, it can claim little legal justification and has wealthy opponents. This issue, like the threat of cyber-attack, has and will continue to tempt states to intrusively regulate the Internet, even at the level of its physical infrastructure. Iran’s announcement last month of a self-contained, countrywide intranet system is only the latest example. States should keep in mind, though, that unlike transportation networks, the Internet is complex enough to react like an ecosystem. Disturbing parts without understanding the whole will lead to unexpected and undesirable results.

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Adam Scholl is an Editorial Associate at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Remko van Dokkum]

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